Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why the rift between Eastern and Western Europe on the refugee crisis?

By Gérard Roland

It has been hard not to notice in recent days the difference in attitude between European Union member states on solidarity towards the refugees crisis in Europe. Germany and Sweden have decided to show solidarity. Demonstrations in various European countries have shown a welcoming attitude towards the refugees from war zones in Syria and elsewhere. Even David Cameron is changing his view, because British voters show empathy towards the plight of the refugees.

This strongly contrasts with attitudes in Eastern Europe. Viktor Orban, the shameful Hungarian Prime Minister, is boasting of building a wall to let refugees out. Richard Fico, the Slovak Prime Minster, claims refugees are in fact nearly all economic immigrants seeking a better life in Europe. Central European leaders are quite opposed to EU countries receiving  quotas to share the burden of taking care of refugees.

How do we explain this attitude between "old" Europe  and "new Europe," i.e. Western and Eastern Europe?

Western European countries have the historical memory of nazism and big exodes of population in the beginning or end of the war, and they can relate to it. Since nazism, anti-racism has been part of the core values of EU countries, with the exception of the extreme right that is being vilified for not adhering to those values. Eastern European countries suffered even more from nazism with the extermination of Jews, gypsies and millions and millions of civilians from what Snyder calls the "Bloodlands." The nazi trauma was replaced right away by the communist experience and decades of Soviet oppression.

After the collapse of communism, two distinct political currents have emerged with different interpretations of the recent history. On one hand, there is a democratic current that aspired to introduce democratic institutions and to be freed from the shackles of Soviet oppression and become a modern nation respecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. On the other hand, there is a strong nationalist current that saw the breakup of communism as an opportunity for national reawakening. This nationalist movement aspires to ethnic homogeneity within the national boundaries so that the national culture and the national community may prosper.

This form of nationalism is not bellicist, but strongly believes in the defense of the national community. It is not opposed to democracy, but views it as a tool for the nation to bloom, not as a goal in itself. On the other hand, this form of nationalism is strongly intolerant to national minorities. People are not ashamed of being racist towards the gypsies. The latter are seen as obstacles to the nation's development. The attitude towards refugees is the same. They are seen as a threat by nationalists.

We do not realize enough that nationalist forces of this kind in Eastern Europe are much more powerful than in Western Europe. They do not suffer from the stigma of the extreme-right in Western Europe associated to nazism and collaboration with the nazis. These nationalists were anti-Soviet during the cold war, but for different reasons than the democratic dissidents. In the recent Maidan revolution in Ukraine, for example, rightist nationalists fought side by side with the democrats and are allied in the fight to preserve Ukrainian independence from Russian aggression.

Why did the nationalists in Eastern Europe support European integration? Because EU integration represented a promotion for their nation, from the status of satellite country of the USSR to member of a first world club. This does not mean that they shared all the European values to the same extent.

It is true that a fight is now taking place inside the European polity for what constitute the hardcore European values. This fight cannot be avoided, but it is an opportunity to strengthen the core values of Europe; it is a fight for what constitutes the heart of European identity. The same kind of nationalism exists in all European countries, and the challenges of integrating large groups of refugees should not be underestimated. How well we manage this challenge, and how broadly a debate takes place around these values will determine the fate of Europe. Nationalism should not be suppressed, but its expression should only take place in an atmosphere of tolerance of other cultures and nations, in an atmosphere of solidarity with the victims of war and all sorts of catastrophes, in an atmosphere of respect and learning from other cultures.

I am glad and proud that Angela Merkel has started to speak out exactly in this sense. I hope many others will follow her lead.